The McRib is like Holbein’s skull: we experience it as (quasi-)foodstuff, as marketing campaign, as cult object, as Internet meme, but those experiences don’t sufficiently explain it. To understand McRib fully, we have to look at the sandwich askew.
When McDonald’s first “retired” the McRib in 2005, it marketed the event as the “McRib Farewell Tour.” The promotion included websites with a mock-petition to save the sandwich, sponsored by the fictitious “Boneless Pig Farmers Association of America.” The same farewell tour appeared again in 2006, and yet again in 2007. Since then, the sandwich has reappeared for a few weeks in the autumn, a predictable part of the holiday season.
Together, the eternal return of the McRib, along with the blatant celebration of a sandwich that is obviously and unabashedly fake comprise the cause of desire the public bears for McDonald’s. Not just for the McRib, mind you, but for all of the restaurant’s offerings—most of which rely on the same cheap ingredients, machined pre-preparation, and chemical additives that the McRib embodies to the point of caricature.
We know that we do not know the composition of the McNugget or McRib or McWhatever, but we do not know precisely what it is that we do not know. Nevertheless, we desire such products not in spite of the fact that we do not know it, but because we don’t. This apparent paradox rests at the very heart of McDonald’s cookery: the secret components and methods that make it possible to create cheap and predictable, sweet and fat fast food. We normally don’t talk about it, but the chemical composition, mass-manufacture, and freezer-to-tray reconstitution of fast food isn’t just a convenient means to produce a result people enjoy. Instead, that very manufactured falseness is itself what we desire, in food as much as in smartphones—what is high-tech if not designed fakery?
In fact, manufactured, technological falseness has become a feature of haute cuisine as much as fast food. As Jeb Boniakowski has argued, apart from context, cost, and class markers, there’s really not much difference between McDonald’s “super-processed” food and molecular gastronomy, the application of food science to haute cuisine.
If you put a Cheeto on a big white plate in a formal restaurant and serve it with chopsticks and say something like “It is a cornmeal quenelle, extruded at a high speed, and so the extrusion heats the cornmeal ‘polenta’ and flash-cooks it, trapping air and giving it a crispy texture with a striking lightness. It is then dusted with an ‘umami powder’ glutamate and evaporated-dairy-solids blend.” People would go just nuts for that.
And just as fine dining derives some of its desirability from its infrequence, so the McRib’s regular death and reanimation might be a necessary condition for its viability. Some have argued that if marketplace demand for pork trimmings were to rise consistently, then their prices would rise too, destroying the very conditions that make the sandwich possible. Much like waterways can be overfished, the pork parts market can be over-McRibbed. At least, that seems to have been true of the sandwich’s mythic origins. These days, McDonald’s claims that the McRib is made from ground pork, not from offal. Nevertheless, its scarcity makes the sandwich as much a financial instrument as it does an entrée. In 2012, McDonald’s shrewdly shifted the McRib’s return to December from October, relocating its revenues and thus producing slightly higher fourth quarter profits.